Sebelius calls for action now on health care

WASHINGTON (AP) Testifying before a Senate panel, Sebelius pledged herself to Obama's goal of overhauling the health system to bring down costs and shrink the ranks of 48 million uninsured Americans. Although consumers, insurers, the health industry and others largely agree that reform is needed now, some battle lines have been drawn over Obama's health overhaul plans.

"Inaction is not an option. The status quo is unacceptable, and unsustainable," said Sebelius, citing high health care costs that she said were hurting families and crippling the economy.

"Currently, there's no relief in sight," she said.

Sebelius appeared before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, where she was welcomed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been battling brain cancer.

His hands shaking slightly, Kennedy said that over the past 10 months, he has experienced the health care system up close. "I've benefited from the best of medicine. But we have too many uninsured Americans," said the committee chairman.

Sebelius was introduced by former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the former Senate Republican leader and 1996 presidential nominee. Dole echoed Sebelius' call for quick action toward a health care overhaul.

"We need to get it done and do it this year," Dole said, praising Sebelius as a bipartisan leader who could pull it off.

"If we'll all just give and take a little we could end up with pretty good legislation," Dole said.

Conservatives have criticized Sebelius, a Roman Catholic who supports abortion rights. She vetoed several bills in Kansas to impose new restrictions on abortion providers or regulations on clinics.

But just days before her confirmation hearing, she signed legislation that would ensure that women and girls seeking abortions are allowed to see ultrasound images or hear their fetus' heartbeat before the procedure, a measure strongly backed by abortion foes.

While Obama has pushed for health care overhaul, lawmakers have questioned how the administration would pay for the plan. Sebelius didn't address how to pay for the plan or mention what's emerged as the most divisive issue -- a proposal endorsed by Obama and many Democrats that would give Americans the option of buying medical coverage through a government plan.

That proposal has incited strong opposition from Republicans and the insurance industry who contend it would drive private insurers out of business.

Kennedy asked Sebelius what her background had taught her about how to accomplish health care reform.

"States can't do it alone," Sebelius said she had learned as governor. "It's a daunting task without a federal policy in place and a federal partner."

Sebelius cited Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts, where a pioneering 2006 law requires nearly everyone to carry insurance or face fines. Policymakers there decided to extend coverage first, and deal with costs later. Now costs are ballooning.

The lesson, Sebelius said: the approach must be comprehensive.

Sebelius also said it was premature to discuss whether the Food and Drug Administration's food safety functions should be split into a separate agency, as some have suggested after the recent salmonella outbreak and other food safety problems.

"Step one is restoring FDA as a world-class regulatory agency," Sebelius said.

Sebelius is Obama's second pick to head the department. Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration while apologizing for failing to pay $140,000 in taxes and interest.

Daschle was supposed to lead the health overhaul effort as HHS secretary and head of the White House Office for Health Reform. When he dropped out of consideration the job was split and a separate White House health czar was named.

Sebelius would still play a major role in health legislation efforts. Her background on health care includes blocking an insurance company merger in Kansas while insurance commissioner in 2001.

Sebelius, 60, a Democrat, used that victory as a central component in her campaign for governor the next year, casting herself as a staunch consumer advocate.

The health committee won't actually vote on sending Sebelius' nomination to the full Senate. That job falls to the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold Sebelius' confirmation hearing Thursday.

The Health and Human Services Department oversees the giant Medicare and Medicaid insurance programs for the elderly, poor and disabled, and also includes the Food and Drug Administration. The department has a budget of more than $700 billion and a work force of more than 65,000 people.


Associated Press Writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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